Bell Shakespeare Schools Festival's Macbeth feast
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Bell Shakespeare Schools Festival's Macbeth feast

Imagine Macbeth done with a Game of Thrones theme, or with a touch of Mad Max, throw in some circus stunts, current politics, graphic novels and an indigenous twist and you have a night that would perhaps make the bard roll in his grave.

Or perhaps you'd have a night that would please him greatly, would make him proud that 400 years down the track actors are still finding such different and vibrant ways of performing his plays.

High School students from left, Martha De Ramos, Shoshana Lewis and Emily Bell playing the witches as they run through a scene in a production of <i>Macbeth</i> as part of the Bell Shakespeare Schools Festival during a rehearsal Calwell School Theatre.

High School students from left, Martha De Ramos, Shoshana Lewis and Emily Bell playing the witches as they run through a scene in a production of Macbeth as part of the Bell Shakespeare Schools Festival during a rehearsal Calwell School Theatre.Credit:Jeffrey Chan

This eclectic mix of interpretation is exactly what's in store during the inaugural Bell Shakespeare Schools Festival to be held in Canberra on November 4 and 6.

Six schools from the region - Wanniassa School Enrichment Program, Canberra Grammar School, St Edmund's College, St Francis Xavier College, Campbell High School and Batemans Bay High School - have been selected to each perform a third of Macbeth and will come together over the two nights to present the play in two wholes.

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Waniassa High School English teacher and production director Cara Shipp, wearing red scarf, and Bell Shakespeare Company actor in resident Matt Edgerton, grey shirt, give students feedback.

Waniassa High School English teacher and production director Cara Shipp, wearing red scarf, and Bell Shakespeare Company actor in resident Matt Edgerton, grey shirt, give students feedback.Credit:Jeffrey Chan

Chris Tomkinson has been working with the schools, along with Matt Edgerton and Kerreen Ely-Harper, all arts educators with Bell Shakespeare, and he says the audience should expect a "roller-coaster, smorgasbord of theatrical delight".

"Each night will be very different, each production will have quite contrasting qualities," he says.

"The starting point was to ask each director to conceptualise their own production, to come up with their own interpretation and they're each strikingly different, drawing upon their particular interests and skills.

"Batemans Bay has some students with circus skills, they've incorporated that; Campbell High has a particular interest in graphic novels, in horror style work, and they've used that as a starting point.

"St Edmund's decided to go with a post-apocalyptic theme set in a world where society has collapsed, you could use Mad Max shorthand for that … you kill a king and you change the order of the world … that's very much a theme of Shakespeare's Macbeth."

At Wanniassa, where the enrichment program also incorporates students from Namadgi and Calwell high schools, the cast has been rehearsing since May. The students include identified gifted students and those who have a particular interest in acting, directing, make-up and costume design or stage management. Teacher Cara Shipp says the students have been fully committed to the task and she's seen benefits beyond the production itself.

"We have some students with serious family and health issues who have found it a really wonderful outlet," she says.

"We have some students for whom school attendance and truancy is an issue and they have turned up to every rehearsal, even in the school holidays.

"Some of our students have very low literacy, and have been able to learn their lines in what is very difficult language."

Wanniassa has been working with the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory, incorporating the Lightning Brothers Dreaming with the help of elder Uncle Bill Yidumduma Harney.

"We wanted to bring together two ancient forms of storytelling – Shakespearean theatre and Aboriginal rock art, music and Dreaming stories," says Shipp.

At St Edmund's, teacher Danni Oates admits she was somewhat surprised by how the boys have been excited about Shakespeare.

"Even boys who don't do drama or ones who only thought that 'Shakespeare sucked' or was hard," she says.

"They have been really involved in the characters and the motivations behind them; they love feeling the passion of what drives the characters."

At Canberra Grammar School, head of drama Vanessa Johnson remembers going to see a Bell Shakespeare production as a Year 10 student herself, and is revelling in the chance to share her passion with the students.

"Bell Shakespeare has always had the intention to make Shakespeare accessible for all, especially school students," she says.

"For drama students, performing Shakespeare is the equivalent of Theatre Olympics. If students can learn how to understand the language and deliver it in a way that the audience can understand and love then they deserve gold medals. It's wonderful that our students have been given this opportunity."

Johnson says Grammar has taken quite a physical approach to the play.

"They have loved that part," she says.

"I think one of the surprising things has been the way in which they have become very close and supportive of one another … they all really wanted to be involved, on the same journey together and most importantly it has been so much fun. We have been surprised about how much fun it's been even though Macbeth is a tragedy."

Each teacher agrees that Shakespeare still has a place in the school curriculum, that it is still relevant for students today. Tomkinson does too.

"But I challenge the word relevant," he says. "I don't think Shakespeare needs to be made relevant.

"For 400 years we've been performing these plays and recognising ourselves, seeing our own feelings, our own fears, our own desires.

"So all we have to do, rather than make it relevant, is to make it clear to students, illuminate it for them.

"What hasn't changed in 400 years, when so much has changed - fashion, the language to some extent, geopolitics, science and technology - is the emotional human being.

"We still fall in love just as passionately, we still experience jealousy and ambition, we still have fears, marriages and relationships are troubled, people of extraordinary greatness still make sacrifices for each other … Shakespeare wrote about all of this and it's still so relevant today."

Bell Shakespeare Schools Festival will be held at the Canberra Theatre Centre on November 4 (Wanniassa, Canberra Grammar, St Edmund's) and November 6 (St Francis Xavier, Campbell High School and Bateman's Bay High School.) Tickets from $15. canberratheatrecentre.com.au

Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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